Maldives: Quest For Democracy

P. Kharel

In a dramatic verdict, the Supreme Court in the Indian Ocean tiny archipelago of the Maldives early last month overturned earlier court decisions and directed that nearly a dozen prominent political prisoners be freed. In a quick reaction issued from London, the former president Mohammed Nasheed welcomed the development and announced he would contest this year’s elections. But it seems elections uncertainty and democratic procedures are far from being in order.
Abdulla Yameen, president since 2013, refused to abide by the court order and declared a state of emergency. He had two senior court judges arrested and his own half-brother and former president for 30 years Maumoon Abdul Gayoom placed under house arrest. In an act of judiciary farce, he then had the remaining Supreme Court judges reverse the previous decision to free the political prisoners. In reaction, Nasheed asked the government of India to send troops to intervene in the archipelago.
Jailed in 2016, Nasheed asked for a visit to London for medical checkups. Though initially the government refused to approve the request, it eventually gave in to international pressure. After his medical checkup, the former president sought an asylum in Britain, which was granted, especially in view of the tell-tale signs of the beatings he suffered in prison.
It was only to be expected that the former president asked president Yameen to resign in the wake of the court verdict. No less predictable is that the authoritarian ruler in Male has so far not obliged, and will probably stay put unless some unexpected sweeping events and their consequences engulf his regime. Allegations against Nasheed include an order for the abduction of a judge in 2011. However, the latest development has revived new hopes for the exclusively 400,000 Maldivians of putting the democratic rails back on track.

Revived course
Right from the beginning, the Yameen government went for harsh measures fearing its weak position in public estimate. After ousting the archipelago’s first democratically elected president and slapping on him a 13-year jail sentence in 2016, it rushed through the 85-member parliament (Majlis) a law criminalising defamation and prescribing stiff jail term and steep fines for news media, journalists and social media users. The burden of proof was to be furnished by the defendants, failing which the licences of media companies will be scrapped.
Yameen, a half-brother of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who lost in the first multiparty elections, represents the class that benefited the most from misuse of power for three decades of one-party rule. The United Nations working Group on Arbitrary Detention termed Nasheed’s detention “unlawful and politically motivated”. When the Commonwealth in 2016 warned the island nation could be suspended for the shabby manner in which political opponents were treated, the government in Male withdrew from the organisation. In a show of defiance, it ordered that most prominent political opponents be arrested, including those with a strong potential for challenging Yameen if and when elections are held this year.
The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in November 2016 was preparing to organise rally designed to demonstrate support for the jailed leader Nasheed, before he left for medical treatment abroad. So suspicious, fearful and uncertain of popular protests was Yameen that he declared a state of emergency on the eve of protest programme planned by the main opposition, that the establishment declared a state of emergency. The emergency rule automatically suspended civil rights; and banned the right to assemble and organise public rallies. At the same time, anyone could be arrested without charge.
Clearly, the authoritarian regime was attempting at circumventing any show of public support for the opposition movement for restoration of democracy. Its response to the opposition movement might have postponed the problem for some time but it was going to neither silence nor demobilise the opposition for long. It correctly assessed to the former president’s popularity as a constant threat to anti-reformists.
Nasheed in 2013 had ordered the arrest of a Supreme Court judge, appointed during the one-party rule, on charges of misuse of office. Soon after, security forces made to resign under extreme duress. In the 2013 elections, Yameen defeated Nasheed in a widely disputed election, in which the Supreme Court annulled the first round that had Nasheed clearly in the lead. The existing dispensation has as its core backing force those who were closely associated with the island chain’s 30 years of one-party autocracy. The opposition had consistently indicated not to rest quietly if its legal options were over and political suppression continued. Nasheed stands as its main source of rallying point for public support.
The incumbent regime has reasons to worry about its future on account of persistent charges of corruption committed by those in high places during the one-party decades and after Nasheed’s ouster. As president, Nasheed refrained from ordering any serious probe into alleged corruption charges and unaccounted wealth amassed by the rulers and their cronies. Like Bhutan, the Maldives lagged behind the rest of South Asia in accepting multiparty system. Whereas Bhutan’s absolute monarchy had previously banned political parties, the Maldives allowed only the ruling party to operate, as is the case in fully communist states. Moreover, it saw emergency rule on several occasions, underscoring the undercurrent of dissidence against autocracy.
Losing power causes excruciating pain to most politicians. Some betray their deep sense of disappointment while others manage to pretend that “change in government is a normal process in a democracy”. Those flouting democratic principles when it comes to putting them into practice are often the ones who swear by democratic values the loudest.
There was a major effort by a political group in 1988 to force Maumoon Abdul Gayoom out of power but the man ruling with strong-arm tactics - as has his half-brother since the last five years—locked himself incommunicado from the rest of South Asia but contacted the Indian government inviting its troops to rescue him. New Delhi’s support helped prop up the unpopular regime for a decade more before large scale street demonstrations gathered momentum. In the new millennium, the opposition movement for reforms gathered strength to the extent that the long-ruling Gayoom saw the gravity of the situation, and agreed to multiparty elections. In power for 30 years, he longed for a term also under multiparty democracy. Voters considered this untenable and rejected him in the subsequent elections, giving to Nasheed their mandate.

Former president Gayoom and his half-brother who was part of the team that ousted Nasheed now seem to have taken their own paths, as indicated by Yamneen’s order to detain Gayoom. The regime in Male seems to be in a belligerent mood, throwing to the winds all norms of democratic governance and issuing orders like a full-fledged dictator. He might be toying with the idea of not holding the due elections, fearing defeat by Nasheed and his party. Even if elections were conducted, there are fears of the regime resisting the process of fair polls. Should such course be taken, the Male regime would be inviting a welling up of public wrath, which when spilled out, could cause serious consequences for it and its cronies. India, Britain and the United States had urged Yameen to honour the rule of law and free the detainees. They could do better: Issue economic and other sanctions against dictator in Male.


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